I know your pain. We’ve all been there. You’re excited to jump into this new adventure and purchase your first AR-15. But you probably feel a bit like a mosquito on a nude beach: you know what you’re supposed to do, but not where to start.
The question I want you to ask yourself before you go down this path is simple: Why do you want an AR-15? I don’t mean that in the judgmental way a disbelieving friend or family member might say it. Rather, I want you to think about the role you want it to fill.
If you’re like most first time buyers, then you have some kind of notion that you want it for self-defense, so you need it to be reliable. But you also might want to compete with it, so it has to be super accurate.
Maybe you also want to participate in all of those photo threads in the message boards, so you need to have all the cool accessories.
It probably seems like there’s more information out there than you can conceivably sort through. In the end, you might get caught up in the same thing I did when I started this journey: paralysis by analysis.
There are so many options, that you almost don’t know where to begin.
Allow me help you with that.
Bottom Line Up Front
I’ve spent a significant portion of my professional life as a technical trainer. It’s my habit to always explain the “why” behind things. But I get it, you might not have time to go through the rest of the article right now and get my reasoning.
Maybe you just want me to to suggest a good first AR-15 for newbies, or perhaps the best AR-15 overall.
So let’s get to it.
You’ll probably notice that my recommendations aren’t on the budget end of the price spectrum. However, they aren’t on the high end, either. You see, quality costs money and I’m trying to save you time and expenses in the long run.
Each of the rifles I suggest here are reliable, accurate, and will serve you well for years before you feel like you need something else. That’s not to say you wont want something new, that’s just how black rifle disease (BRD) works.
But that’s another story.
So, with that said, let’s get on to the recommendations.
Let’s start with complete rifles. This is the most straight-forward path, though the slightly more expensive one. The alternative, which I’ll get to in a minute, is buying the lower and assembled upper separately.
Colt 6720 Lightweight Carbine
The lightweight Colt 6720 is nearly perfect for a first AR-15. I would personally prefer that it have a mid-length gas system, but that’s certainly not a deal breaker. With this particular option, you are set for a long long time and are sure to have a very functional and easy to handle rifle.
The only catch these days is that Colt rifles on the civilian market are getting harder to find.
Centurion Arms CM4
The Centurion Arms CM4 is pretty much exactly the rifle I advocate in this article. It has a 16″ barrel with a mid length gas system, lightweight rail and profile, and comes from a reputable source.
The ownter, Monty, is a former Naval Special Warfare NCO with a wealth of experience on the weapons system.
There are many other complete rifles I could recommend from Bravo Company USA, Daniel Defense, Sionics, and other brands I like.
These companies all make great rifles, and I vouch for them. If this wasn’t your first AR-15, I would probably even suggest one. But you will pay more for these than the ones I already listed, and they honestly don’t bring a whole lot more to the table.
That said, if you’re really trying to save some money, then check out the stripped down Colt OEM series and the similar Aero Precision OEM. Both give you all the basics at a lower price, but you’ll have to fill in the extra furniture.
Some people prefer to buy a lower and upper separately. This is actually my usual route.
You can actually save a little money with this path since you can buy half the weapon now and the other half later. You also have a lot more configuration options of pre-built uppers ready to go.
These are my suggestions for your first AR-15 project:
BCM Lightweight 16″
The BCM Lightweight Standard 16″ is a great starter upper that actually appears in several of my photos. It is what I used for my second project, and the base inspiration for the minimum capable carbine.
BCM is an excellent manufacturer who plays very close attention to the details. Their lightweight and enhanced lightweight profiles are excellent options.
SIONICS Patrol Three Upper
SIONICS is not a commonly known name in the industry, but it’s backed by some very dedicated people. Their Patrol Three Upper is a great option for a free-floated upper half.
Now that I’ve made my suggestions, let’s get to all of my reasoning for them.
Selecting Your First AR-15
The AR-15 is the most popular self-loading rifle in the country. Manufacturers spend an awful lot of advertising dollars to sway your opinion. That also means that you’re probably stuck between several good-sounding options and want more information.
To start this off, I want to tell you my guiding principles when it comes to gear. You’re going to see me repeat these all over the site as you read through articles.
I hate wasting money. Because of that, I spend a lot of time researching nearly every purchase I make. You’re probably the same.
As an example, it took me three months to choose which 4” fixed blade knife I wanted for a gift. You can imagine what the year and a half looked like while I researched my first AR-15. Even then, I still got parts of it wrong.
I’ve learned to follow two guiding principles:
- Mission drives gear
- Buy nice or buy twice
Mission Drives Gear
This is an old military saying meaning that you should select equipment best suited to the task at hand.
It doesn’t make sense to use a short-barreled rifle for long range precision. It was designed for close quarters and clearing buildings.
Likewise, there is little benefit to using a nice precision match rifle for dumping high volumes of lead into a dirt berm with you buddies.
As simple as the idea of mission drives gear may seem, there are an awful lot of people out there who aren’t following it.
The AR-15, and all its various configurations, is one of the most well-understood and popular rifles in the world. There are hundreds, if not thousands of configurations.
The US military itself has worked through several variants:
- M16A1 with triangular handguards, skinny barrel, and stupid-tough fixed rear sight
- M16A2 with round handguards, “government” profile barrel and adjustable sights
- M16A4 with railed handguards, detachable sights, and magnified optics
- M4 and M4A1 carbine with short barrels and all sorts of gizmos hanging off them, great for urban and mid-range combat.
- Mk12 Special Purpose Rifle with match barrel, free floated rail, and magnified optics
- Mk18 CQBR with a super short barrel, purpose-built for clearing buildings
- The “Recce” rifle, which was a special home brew precision M4 with 16” barrel
The thing to remember is that each of these configurations had a purpose in mind. Sure, government bureaucracy sometimes got in the way and drove some bad decisions, like the “government” profile barrel. But, in all, they do their job extremely well.
The more you specialize an AR-15 for a particular role, the worse it performs at others. For example, short barreled rifles are great for quick handling at close range, but they have dramatic velocity drop off and skull-rattling concussion. Heavy barreled precision rifles suited to long-range shooting are a relative pain to carry.
This is at the extremes, of course.
That brings us back to the opening question: What is your mission? Why do you want to buy an AR-15?
If you’re like most of us, you don’t have an armory of each configuration to hand out on a situational basis. At least not starting out. Black rifles tend to multiply like that, though.
Consider that to be fair warning.
For us, it makes sense that the first one does a pretty good job at everything.
Buy Nice or Buy Twice
This one is simple. If you are going to buy something, then buy enough quality to last.
When it comes to AR-15s, hucksters say Part X is “just as good as” Part Z. They usually don’t have any proof of the claim, either. The end result is that the guy looking for a good deal buys the cheaper thing, and then has it break on them after a while.
Now they need to buy a replacement.
I’ve seen someone buy three of the exact same cheap red dot sight. The first one broke after a few months, so they replaced it with the second. That one made it about a year before they replaced it with another. In all, the money spent on three copies of the same cheap red dot was more than buying a single quality one. That quality sight would have lasted practically forever, and come with a lifetime warranty.
Don’t get me wrong, though, I’m not saying you should spend huge amounts of cash. I used to say “Buy once, cry once” all of the time. But I realized that I was encouraging the wrong line of thought.
Market Price and Quality Control
The sweet spot for balancing quality and price with AR-15s is usually between $900 and $1200.
If a manufacturer starts advertising too far below that price, then you have to ask what kind of compromises they are making to get there. I’m not saying that a bargain bin $500 AR is going to explode in your hands tomorrow. But I am saying that to reach a $500 price point, you don’t know what kind of loose tolerances, quality control, testing, metallurgy, and care of assembly went into the product.
If the gun only ever turns money into noise by dumping lead into the berm, then it wouldn’t matter. But if you ever suspect that you might be in a position where the rifle going bang every time you pulled the trigger is important to you, then you should consider spending a little more.
Now, will all of the philosophy stuff out of the way, let’s get to the nitty gritty.
Your First AR-15: The Minimum Capable Carbine
I started developing this concept several years ago, when interest in buying an AR-15 began spiking among my friends and coworkers. I was the “gun guy,” so they wanted help.
This spec list is the result of nearly ten years of experimentation, competition, training, and study.
It’s not perfect, since everything is a compromise, but it works pretty darn well.
The minimum capable carbine is one that reliably performs most tasks well. This gives you time to learn the ins and outs of the platform and develop your skills with a rifle that grows with you.
This AR-15 carries well, has good accuracy, and always fires as long as a basic maintenance routine is kept. It is equally suited to home defense as it is carrying on a pack during a hike through the woods.
This is a basic overview:
Minimum Capable Carbine Features
- 16″ Lightweight mid-length chrome lined barrel with a fixed front sight base
- Either quality plastic handguards or a basic free float rail
- Quality collapsible stock
- Quality pistol grip of choice
- Standard trigger or something close to it like the BCM PNT or ALG ACT
- Quality rear sight, with or without adjustment
- If you have the money to buy an optic, then do so- but buy one of good quality. If you don’t have the funds for a good one, then rock the irons until you save for it.
- Bonus: If you plan on using the weapon for defensive purposes, then you should mount a good light on it
- Bonus: You should get a sling, because retention matters
In a moment, I’ll walk you through my choices here and explain each one. But before that, the question will come up:
Should You Build or Buy Your First AR-15?
When I started out, the buzz around the message boards was that it was cheaper to build your first AR-15. The idea was that you could buy the exact parts that you wanted and assemble them together. This was cheaper than buying a complete quality-built rifle and then spending the money to replace the parts that you didn’t want.
It turns out that it was more expensive for me.
The hidden costs added up. From shipping all the individual parts to all the extra tools that I had to buy to complete the assembly. On top of that, I still had to pay someone else to assemble the upper.
I watched them do it and always questioned whether they did it right. To date, that upper has been rebuilt three times.
I spent about $2300 building my first AR, not including the optic. That kind of money could have bought me a KAC SR-15 or some other very high-quality rifle out of the box.
These days, there are so many good manufacturers making such a wide variety of rifles that it is silly to choose the build route for a first rifle.
My suggestion, especially for your first AR-15, is to buy a complete rifle from a good manufacturer. My favorites include Colt, Centurion Arms, Bravo Company USA (BCM), Sionics Weapon Systems, and Daniel Defense. These manufacturers produce a good product right around the sweet spot price point.
If you still have the itch to build, then you should buy a stripped lower receiver to finish. Then pick up a complete upper from one of the mentioned manufacturers.
Let’s Talk Specs
Let’s talk about some of the finer details that make up the minimum capable carbine. Several years ago, a gentleman by the name of Rob S put together the infamous Chart. In 2009, when I first read it, the chart was a list of technical specifications found in the government M16/M4 family. These specs contributed to the reliability and performance of the rifle.
It also highlighted which manufacturers were adhering to those specifications.
In the years since the chart went public, the gun buyers got smarter and more demanding about what they wanted. In response, manufacturers started touting their compliance, lest they be seen as inferior.
These days, the chart is long gone, and nearly all those specs show up on every AR-15 sold. So, it’s getting more difficult to tell the difference between a good quality AR-15 and a lesser quality one by looking only at the spec sheet.
That said, I want to run down the key specification points and offer some tips. This is not a comprehensive detailed breakdown. Each of these topics has their own associated blog post getting into more detail.
Choosing your barrel is a stressful decision for most beginners. There are simply a lot of options out there. What you will find below is some quick takeaways from that much larger article. I highly suggest you check out my article on choosing an AR-15 barrel, which will prepare you for making this decision.
The barrel, combined with the bolt carrier, is the beating heart of the rifle.
Buy a lightweight profile barrel made from MIL-B-11595E certified steel, which could either be 4150 ORD or CMV. Get it with a chrome lined bore and fixed front sight. This combination is the most versatile for people who own only one AR and need it to do lots of things well.
- The lightweight barrel is accurate enough for target practice and some competition
- Lightweight barrels are easy to carry
- They handle well indoors for home defense.
- Fixed front towers are the strongest front sight available
- Fixed front towers offer the best accuracy potential with iron sights
I suggest either a 16″ or 20″ barrel. The length primarily affects the velocity and balance of the rifle. Velocity has a huge impact on the trajectory of the bullet as well as its effective range. The 16″ is a good all-around length and a solid choice for most tasks. The 20″ makes a fantastically shootable rifle with a flat trajectory, but comes at the cost of a little more weight.
During the last Assault Weapons Ban, manufacturers started putting out heavy barreled (HBAR) variants. They targeted these towards competition shooters since heavy barrels tend to be more accurate.
Their extra mass also helps put up with higher volumes of fire.
The accuracy thing is interesting. But if this is your first AR-15 then you are not likely to take advantage of the increased capability. If you’re already a competitive high power shooter now moving into the AR platform, then a heavier barrel made of SS410 or 416r stainless steel might benefit you.
Otherwise, you are better served by learning the rifle and shooting out the first barrel as you practice. That will take about 20,000 rounds. For most people, that is years and years of shooting, if they ever get there. For professional shooters in competition, that’s about a single season of practice, training, and competition.
It helps when your practice ammo and rebarreling costs are paid for by someone else.
A lightweight profile puts up with plenty of abuse while also being easier to carry and maneuver.
Weight matters. I’ve been to many a training class where people start stripping junk off their rifles to save weight.
There are a lot of barrel steels out there. Look for 4150 steel or better, as mentioned before with the government’s 11595E specification. The cheaper 4140 isn’t terrible, but 4150 is the minimum government spec for the AR-15. It has a bit more durability for use in firearms due to its higher carbon content.
Stainless barrels are often used in precision rifles. It’s not that stainless is any more accurate than 4150, though.
Historically, stainless barrels were easier to machine and polish, while also being more resistant to corrosion. That means manufacturers shorten their supply chain and produce more consistently machined barrels.
Consistency is accuracy.
Stainless barrels come with some risks in durability, particularly in very cold weather. For that reason, stay away from lightweight profile stainless barrels. They should always be a medium profile or heavier.
If you want to go the stainless route, then buy one made from 410 or 416r stainless. If you plan to use the rifle in below freezing weather, then stick to 416r.
I chose chrome lining for your first AR-15 because it’s more common, durable, and well understood. Nitrided barrels, which you often see advertised as Melonite/QPQ/Tenifer and other trade names, are barrels treated with a surface conversion process. This makes them very corrosion resistant and it doesn’t have the accuracy trade-off of chrome lining.
The compromise is that the nitrided barrel is much less heat tolerant of high rates of fire. This applies more to fully automatic rather than your regular semi-auto rifle.
When it comes to nitrided barrels, I really like Faxon’s options, and used one of their 18” gunner barrels on a lightweight project.
I know there are nitrided stainless barrels out there on the market. Be cautious here, since the temperature used for nitriding is very close to that used for tempering a barrel. Generally, I would avoid nitrided stainless barrels unless you’re buying from a known high-quality manufacturer who can certify the temperatures used in the process.
For more information here, read my article all about barrel nitriding.
Look for a twist rate of 1-7 or 1-8. Some cheaper barrels have a 1-9 twist rate, which will actually work fine for shooting bulk ammo in the 55gr to 62gr range. But if you ever want to use the heavier and more accurate 77gr family of bullets, then you will need the faster twist.
If you want more detailed information about selecting the right twist rate for your rifle, head over to my article all about rifle twist rates.
Rails and Handguards
Some people are particularly passionate about this. Plastic handguards work well for 95% of people out there. They are usually lighter, plenty durable, cheaper, and replaceable. I usually find them more comfortable as well since the shape is ergonomic and internal heat shields help protect my hand after lots of shooting.
I like the Magpul MOE series of plastic handguards.
Rails come in either free floated or non-free floated format. These days, I see no reason at all to have a non-free floated rail system.
The advantage of free floated rails is two fold:
- First, they offer lots of real estate for attaching accessories like lights or lasers.
- Second, they do not interfere with the barrel during firing. This provides a small, but noticeable, accuracy boost.
There are several well-made rails on the market that are even lighter than plastic handguards. Some of my favorites out there are made by ALG, BCM, and Centurion Arms.
AR-15 triggers are a highly personal thing, and everyone has their own preferences. I suggest reading my longer article about AR-15 trigger selection as a follow-up to this.
When I started out, I went immediately for a $200+ Geissele SSA. Since then, I’ve installed an SSA-E, SD-E, and a Larue MBT. All of those are great triggers.
The last one used an ALG ACT, which simply a coated and polished mil-spec trigger.
I have a preference for two stage triggers, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to go. I love my nice triggers, but I also realized they circumvented the process of learning to squeeze the trigger well.
In truth, if I were starting over with my first AR-15, I would stay with a good mil spec trigger like the ALG ACT or BCM PNT for as long as possible.
Lighter triggers are not a replacement for poor fundamentals. A practiced shooter can take any trigger and use it effectively.
Poor shooters seek to get “better” by fixing their issues with more gear. Get a decent mil-spec trigger and practice. Once you’ve mastered that, then consider a nicer trigger that gives you the extra accuracy with the skill you’ve already developed.
To be honest, this is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Far too many people are getting too complicated with this. The standard A2 birdcage flash hider is perfectly fine, and even desirable, for 90% of users.
But it’s not expensive and fancy, so people want to replace it.
The bottom line is that muzzle brakes and compensators make more noise and more often than not just cover up bad shooting mechanics. For the average user, you’re better off spending that money on more practice ammo to get a hold of your fundamentals and recoil management.
For the other 10%, where a brake or comp might be useful, it means that you fall into one of three categories:
- You’re already an expert at very fast shooting and need an extra edge in an action shooting match
- You live in a state that bans flash hiders (sorry about that)
- You have a suppressor that uses a muzzle brake as a sacrificial baffle
If one of those applies to you, then cool. You could honestly take your pick, as they all work about the same, and will cause you (and everyone else) the same amount of headache when you shoot it near them.
The Buffer Tube and Stock
The stock is one of those things that most people take for granted. It’s just…there. But it’s also the only part of the rifle that makes contact with two parts of your body: your shoulder and your cheek.
That said, there’s no need to over-complicate this. If you are buying a complete rifle, it probably comes with a pretty good stock already out of the box. Shoot it and enjoy it.
If you are taking the path of assembling your own or want to customize what you already have, then pick what looks good to you from Magpul, BCM, LMT, or B5. They all do their job well, and it isn’t worth sifting through the small differences between them.
For a long time, I advocated for fixed rifle-length stocks. I still enjoy them. I realize that there is a lot of utility sacrificed in the process, though. Fixed stocks offer much more stable cheek welds, which increases accuracy potential. This happens at the expense of adjustability and compactness. What you value more is up to you.
Remember, mission drives gear.
Whichever choice you make, make sure to get the right size. If you go for a rifle length stock, then you will need a rifle buffer tube (technically called the receiver extension). That also requires a different rifle spring and buffer.
Again, whatever path you choose, buy quality. There are small differences in the dimensions between “mil spec” buffer tubes and “commercial.” All of the quality manufacturers follow the “mil spec.”
Aside from the rifle itself, I think a minimum capable AR-15 should have an optic, sling, and white light.
You’ll find thousands of discussions between enthusiasts debating their preferred options. There is an optic targeted to every price point, from ultra cheap to high end. Most people are best served by a red dot sight. This projects a little red dot against an unmagnified lens, and it greatly speeds up the aiming process. It is best suited from 0 to 200 meters, give or take depending on your eyesight.
Optics for Your First AR-15
To keep things simple, I recommend the Aimpoint PRO model. This is a previous generation version of the US Military’s M68 optic. You can find them today for very reasonable prices.
Regardless of the option you choose, expect to spend at least $400 for a quality red dot from Aimpoint, Trijicon, Leupold, EOTech, Vortex, or others.
It’s not cheap. I understand. Stick to your iron sights and master them while you save for the optic. It is not worth buying a cheaper optic in the meantime that could fail on you at any time. But you should still get an optic when you have the funds. Don’t trick yourself into thinking irons are the fundamentals you should learn first and use that as justification to cheap out on a quality optic
Red dot sights are sometimes problematic for people with astigmatism. It turns the red dot into a cluster of red splotches, lines, or other misshapen things. If that’s you, look at prismatic optics, low power fixed magnification, or low power variable scopes.
I also like Trijicon ACOGs for low power fixed options. But at around $1000 give or take for a new one, they aren’t exactly designed for those just getting into the AR-15 world. Trijicon’s low power variable scopes are available in the $500-$700 range, and they offer a lot of good value for the price, such as SWFA’s 1-4x option.
As an aside, please make sure you zero your sights. I’ve come across a lot of people at training classes who just never bothered, and it showed
If you want to use your AR-15 for home defense, you need a flashlight. Lights rated to put up with rifle recoil cost a bit more, but it’s worth it. You also want something with enough power; 100 – 300 lumens is plenty for this purpose. Some people try to push it well beyond what is practical.
My favorites are:
You’ll also need a mount. My favorites come from Gear Sector, Impact Weapon Components, or Arisaka Defense. Make sure you get one matched to your flashlight body diameter and mounting system (1913 rail, M-LOK, etc).
Slings do more than just carry the rifle. I have a long history with variations on the shooting sling, which cinches around the arm to stabilize the rifle. But I don’t think that’s where you should start. A good sling allows you to take up and release slack as needed to adjust the rifle or get more stability.
The top two, in my opinion, are the Blue Force Gear VCAS and the Magpul MS3.
I always recommend two point adjustable slings for new shooters. They will never stop being useful, and can be modified for even more functionality.
The AR-15 is a fantastic rifle, and I’m glad you’re considering one. I consider it the quintessential American rifle these days. There is a lot of information in this article, and I keep it updated as needed to reflect my thoughts and experience. Do your homework, buy quality, and you will have a great experience with your new rifle.
Let me know if you have any thoughts or questions down in the comments. Feel free to argue with me as well. I’m always open to a different perspective.